For those of us with magpie-like tendencies towards music scene retrospectives, a new book from Simon Reynolds is always something to fan the flames of interest. Among his British music critic contemporaries, while Nick Kent and Charles Shaar Murray lived it like they wrote it and Paul Morley wore his obscurant’s sociological obfustication on his sleeve, Reynolds has always been the clearest headed and most excited about possibility beyond stylistic quirks. Although primarily an electronic music fan and early supporter of dubstep he’s always cast his critical eye wide, having made his name analysing the likes of rock’s gender issues and the sociology of early indie and later coined the term “post-rock” in a piece for The Wire about Bark Psychosis. His first retrospective book, Energy Flash: A Journey Through Rave Music And Dance Culture, charted the history of techno and house music from Detroit and Chicago to Ayia Napa, while 2007′s Bring The Noise vies with Jon Savage’s Time Travel as the best evocation of pop, rock, rap and so forth’s development through the medium of article anthology.
His real standout, though, was 2005′s Rip It Up And Start Again: Post Punk 1978-1984, a coincidentally timely exhaustive evocation and definition of the different directions rock took after punk’s messy demise. From Public Image Ltd, Talking Heads and Gang Of Four through industrial and No Wave and taking in 2-Tone, muant disco, synth-pop, hardcore, sampling and New Pop, culminating in ZTT Records and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. A wide brief then, but one whose messy strands were well captured through investigation and reminiscence. It’s the latter that makes up this companion book, Totally Wired, comprising 32 interviews with key figures from the period in question, from John Peel to Edwyn Collins to Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside to Bill Drummond to, neatly enough, Paul Morley.
What makes such a concept, and in fact conceit, work better is that this is possibly the one era where central bands would be so open to political and sociological critique and new ideas. The sort of thing, essentially, that works best in furrowed brow interview pieces. Which is why Reynolds’ style here is often to just sit back, lob in a fact-shaped conversational grenade and let the interviewee map out the damaged area. While it leads to some odd approaches to the subject matter – Suicide’s Alan Vega takes the credit for spreading ‘punk’ as a musical term, Ari Up of the Slits claims to have brought hip hop to the UK, while Pere Ubu’s David Thomas is clearly trying it on with his claims for a scorched-earth ‘authentic’ theorising which leads to an uncomfortable couple of pages mid-Q&A. Proper sociologists would have a field day pointing out how many of the musicians are from relatively well-off middle class backgrounds and/or came from artistically skewed backgrounds, maybe as a reaction against punk’s for-the-people approach. You get the impression that what really swung it for post-punk in Reynolds’ case was that its prime movers were about more than what the music sounded like, and the fact that much of it still sounds exciting and relevant is almost a neat addendum, which is why some participants aware of their musical heritage – David Byrne, Andy Gill of Gang Of Four – almost try and steer clear of extraneous theorising.
What the book is strong on is painting pictures of others’ working methods. Producers from Martin Hannett to Dennis Bovell having the effect on their clients examined. Some of the deeper backgrounds make for fascinating backstory too, such as when Devo’s Gerald Casale lays out the formation of his band’s manifesto – he was one of the students shot at by the National Guard at Kent State University in 1970, an incident that led to the band becoming more of a social satire – while Tony Wilson is cajoled into bringing more depth into his Manchester cheerleading, with some aid later on from Factory associate Linder Sterling. Cabaret Voltaire leader Richard H Kirk eulogises Sheffield and its place in machine tooled pop’s rise, later taken on by Phil Oakey and Trevor Horn variously playing the pop world at their own new game. One point that’s often made in subtext is that punk’s scorched earth policy having wiped clean the idea of virtuosity as standard, much of post-punk’s more outre musical statements came about from bands attempting to play beyond their natural abilities, or trying to take on another form of music – funk, reggae, avant-jazz – under their own terms. You too can do this, it almost says, just work out what this is as you go along.
The book concludes with a section mostly comprising reprinted reviews of related media plus essays on non-musicians in music (Yoko, Eno, Malcolm McLaren). This continues the “ideas thing”, a furthering of the original book’s chapter on the mutant disco of the B52s, ESG and Ze Records. As a final stylistic flourish Reynolds interviews Reynolds, in the form of his own responses in interviews to promote the original book, discussing what post-punk actually is, the ideas behind the book, the politics, the legacy (he’s not keen on the revivalists, bar Liars) and in one brief juncture about the role writing about all this music at the time, and even to an extent in his own works, fed into its history.
You do get the feeling reading both of Reynolds’ histories that such levels of discourse are dying out unloved across the printed media, and as a consequence maybe across the vast majority of music writing. No matter how hard they try, the modern NME is never ever going to make a cause celebre out of Mark Beaumont. As for Totally Wired, little of it will make you want to go out immediately and investigate where the music is coming from to anything like the same degree Rip It Up And Start Again managed. This is partly because there’s a certain amount of unavoidable factual repetition from that volume, but it acts as a backup to assert the uniqueness of this then subculture and the way it ultimately spread its tentacles across more than the record grooves.
Totally Wired is out now on Faber & Faber